Saudi fans of comics and all things geek made history last week with the kingdom’s first ever Comic Con. Despite fevered criticism from traditionalists who accused them of “devil worshipping,” men and women alike put on their best cosplay and mingled together in what one anime enthusiast and vendor called “a dream come true.”
About 20,000 people attended the three-day con, which organizers expect will become an annual event in Jeddah. Despite the fact that public cinemas are banned in the kingdom, Saudi Comic Con was actually sponsored by the government, which has recently been making efforts to foster more youth-centered entertainment events. But according to Hisham AlSaeed, a representative from the company contracted to run the show, the official event is really the culmination of an existing trend: in the past several years, Saudis have been “holding their own cosplay competitions at small, underground private events.”
Although the very existence of the con was an important step forward for Saudi fan culture, it certainly was not free of restrictions. According to a report from CNN, gender-bent costumes and “indecent symbols or logos that went against Islamic teachings” were disallowed. Many women went with their heads uncovered, but were only allowed to remove their abayas to show off their full costumes in a separate all-female tent.
Artists and other vendors also were eager for the exposure brought by the event. Freelance artist Farah Arif said that Saudi companies were unaware of what had been under their noses:
The great thing about this convention [is] that there were animation companies inside of our own country who were invited and were surprised to see so many of us talented freelancers. These companies usually pay way more to outsource talent in neighboring countries when in fact we’ve been here all along.
But most importantly, fans at the con were simply able to have fun and revel in the companionship of like-minded people. As Lebanese-Italian vendor Sergio Azzi observed, “the event itself will prompt controversial opinions, but seeing it from the inside, everyone was enjoying themselves.” Here’s hoping for many more Saudi Comic Cons to come!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.